Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Robin Hood: A Fictional Journey

By NB Dixon

Ever since his story first appeared, the folk hero, Robin Hood, has delighted and fascinated the minds of people all over the world. I remember as if it were yesterday when I first discovered it, tucked away in a corner of the school library. It captured my imagination and has stayed with me ever since. It’s a testament to his endurance that his story has survived for several centuries, and has undergone many different interpretations.

Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood with the sword
as depicted in older ballads 
The first written accounts of Robin Hood are in ballads. These ballads interestingly state his home in Barnsdale forest, not Sherwood, and set his story during the reign of King Edward II, rather than Richard the Lionheart, the King most closely associated with Robin. So, at what point did the story move from Barnsdale forest to Sherwood? When was Edward II replaced by Richard the Lionheart? Were these stories in fact based on real men? It seems we are destined not to know for sure, but these aren’t the only discrepancies in the Robin Hood legend. In the early ballads he is a peasant. In later versions of the story, he’s a nobleman who returns from the crusade to find his lands have been taken. This was actually a common practice. When knights were away on crusade, their lands were often seized by their enterprising neighbours. If the knight had not been heard from in seven years, he was considered to be dead. Often the poor men would return to find their homes were in the possession of another. They might appeal to the law for justice, but as the justice system moved slowly, they were often forced to turn to outlawry as a means of survival.

A knight named Fulk Fitzwarren lost his lands during a quarrel with King Richard’s brother, John, a king whom Robin Hood has a notoriously rocky relationship with. While Fulk Fitzwarren was indeed a real person who became an outlaw for a time and rebelled against King John before eventually having his lands returned to him and becoming a loyal servant to the King, a good deal of romance has sprung up around his story. There are parallels between it and the Robin Hood legend.

Robin becomes kinder once he is a nobleman. He steals only from the rich to give to the poor. Some sceptics have argued that this was nothing more than a piece of propaganda to make the peasant class think more kindly of the nobles who governed their lives.

The first book in which Robin Hood appears as the hero, though it is not in fact his first appearance in a novel, is Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. This book very much softens Robin Hood’s hard edges. He is a kind and cheerful man as opposed to a hardened thug. Many other novels have portrayed Robin with this “traditional image”, although modern interpretations have returned to the grittier, and some would argue, more realistic portrayal of a band of outlaws trying to survive the brutality that was life in medieval England.


There are what one might call traditions in the story. Most people know of Robin’s prowess with the bow. It’s even acknowledged in an inscription on the stone purportedly marking his grave. One of the most often told tales of Robin is how he entered an archery contest under the nose of the Sheriff of Nottingham and won a silver (or sometimes golden) arrow by splitting his opponent’s arrow in two. Two other adventures that crop up in most versions of the tail are Robin’s meeting with Little John, when they embark on a battle with quarterstaffs on a bridge halfway across a stream, which ends in Robin’s defeat and thereby seals the friendship between the two men. His meeting with the priest, Friar Tuck, where Robin forces the Friar to carry him across a stream and the Friar then orders Robin to do the same for him is also a recurring theme.

Robin and Little John with quarterstaffs

Some newer versions of the story of Robin Hood do stand out as brave interpretations, and can even be said to have influenced other authors. The TV series, Robin of Sherwood, first broadcast in the early 1980s, adds a fantasy element to the story. It combines the legend of the famous outlaw with actual historical events and characters and the pagan beliefs of the time. Robin Hood is in fact the servant of Hern the Hunter, a mythical spirit who dwells in the Forest. Since some theories have it that Robin is in fact a spirit or a green man rather than an actual human, perhaps it’s this that gave the creator of the series his idea. Robin of Sherwood remains one of the most loved of the recent interpretations of the legend.

More recently still, the radio series, simply entitled, Hood, turns the legend completely upside down. The Sheriff of Nottingham, usually Robin Hood’s arch enemy, is in fact the hero of the story. He is forced to take on the alias of Robin Hood, and it remains a millstone round his neck for the rest of the series.

As for Robin Hood’s sexuality, it was Professor Stephen Thomas Knight who first suggested that the legend of Robin Hood carried homosexual undertones. In Howard Pyle’s novel, the men embrace and sometimes kiss one another with no visible sign of awkwardness or embarrassment. Throughout every stage of Robin’s evolution as a character, the devotion to his men, and theirs to him, remains the focal point of the story.

In an ever-evolving culture such as ours, it was probably inevitable that someone would place a homosexual interpretation on the legend of Robin. The notion of a man who on the outside was the valiant hero and saviour of the poor, while struggling with inner demons, is intriguing.

In Medieval times, homosexuality was regarded not only as unnatural, but as a crime that could sometimes be punishable by death. It was considered an affront against nature and against God. Many men would have tried to conceal their nature, perhaps by getting married and locking away that part of themselves.

Marian has also evolved as a character. She isn’t in the earliest tales at all, and in many novels, is barely worthy of a mention. Recently, however, she has assumed a much more prominent part, even upstaging Robin on occasion. She has evolved from a weak damsel in distress to a feisty woman in her own right. There have even been some novels written from her perspective.

Robin and Marian

Robin continues to evolve as a character through the medium of novels, radio and TV. It is likely he will continue to fascinate us for many more years to come.

[all images are in the public domain via Wikipedia]

NB is giving away an e-book (worldwide) and a paperback (UK only) of Heir of Locksley. (Closes Sunday 9th April 2017)

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N.B. Dixon is an author of historical fiction. Her love for the Robin Hood legend began in a neglected corner of the school library and has continued ever since. She is a self-confessed bookworm and also a musician. She began work on the Outlaws Legacy Series in 2013, and was accepted by Beaten Track Publishing in 2016.

Outlaws Legacy is a historical series based around the Robin Hood legend, taking Robin through his life, rather than just concentrating on his time as an outlaw. What happened before and after? What made him the man he eventually became? This is the focus of Heir of Locksley, the first novel in the Outlaw’s Legacy series. It follows Robin through his childhood and teenage years, and, through a series of events, shapes the man he will become.

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NB Dixon is running a giveaway of Heir of Locksley - until Sunday 9th April 2017 there is a chance to win an e-copy (worldwide) or a paperback (UK only) HERE

4 comments:

  1. The early episodes of Robin of Sherwood, apart from the Herne bits, were pinched from a very old book whose title I've forgotten - I picked it up remaindered - but could be a Victorian era book. The De Rainault brothers appear, as does "Isambard Da Bellame" who is just as awful as Simon De Belleme. Even the story with the bees is

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  2. ...in it.

    Parke Godwin set his Robin Hood novels in the time of William the Conqueror and Robin is actually Edward, Robin being the nickname his mother gave him - "Puck Robin." The Sheriff is a decent man, who later becomes his friend and marries his cousin.

    And Toby Venables turns the story upside down, with a Guy of Gisburne as the hero and Robin as a psychopath.

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  3. The Errol Flynn film and the Robin of Sherwood series are my favourites. As so very little is actually'known' about this figure, it means anything can be written

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  4. As a little girl, I watched The Adventures of Robin Hood series on television faithfully. Richard the Lionheart was still on crusade, with the Sheriff and Prince John as principle bad guys. Then there was Mel Brooks' Men in Tights.... As Vesper said, there's so little fact, the stories can go in many directions. Fascinating post!

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